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By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 26, 1998; Page A02

The letter arrived in Ernest E. Black's mailbox and struck a nerve. The president, his president was under attack and needed help. He was drowning in legal bills to fight an investigation funded by $35 million of taxpayer money. And so the retired mill worker wrote a check for $100.

Last week, Black watched as President Clinton admitted he had misled the nation. So be it, Black decided. He would have lied, too.

"He's just like me," said Black, 66, who lives in an Ohio city named Defiance. "If somebody would have asked me something like that, I would have done the same thing he did. . . . He's just human. I think he's sorry for doing it. If some lady would pull their bloomers down in front of me, I'm not sure what I would do."

They believed in him, they thought he was unfairly accused, and they even opened their wallets for him. So, after his confession that he had, in fact, done with Monica S. Lewinsky what he had told the country he had not, it would be natural for the 17,000 people who helped fund his legal defense to feel a little betrayed, maybe even ask for their money back, right? Wrong.

As of last Friday, according to Anthony F. Essaye, the executive director of the Clinton Legal Expense Trust, "nobody's asked for a refund."

For all of the disillusionment expressed by inside-the-Beltway Democrats, the fund's trustees said they have seen no erosion in loyalty from Clinton's core backers around the country, a conclusion supported by interviews with nearly 20 randomly selected donors.

These most fervent of supporters have retained their faith, almost uniformly finding Clinton's deceit about a sexual relationship to be disappointing but not disqualifying. If anything, they said, he may have been justified misleading people because he was trying to protect his family. And it does not take long for them to cast the blame right where the president does -- on independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.

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"I don't approve of what happened. It was very irresponsible, very unethical, immoral," said Joseph Ciori, 67, a retired tool-and-die maker from Pottstown, Pa., who with his wife gave Clinton $35. "But I think it should have been a family affair. It's not for investigation."

"They should put Ken Starr in jail," fumed Edward V. Rielly, a pipe fitter from Melrose, Mass., who gave Clinton $100.

Still, some wished his televised speech to the nation had been more contrite. "I thought he should have apologized to the country. I thought he should have apologized to Monica," said Charles Tyler Clark, an attorney and self-described "yellow-dog Democrat" from Birmingham, who chipped in $300. "I'm embarrassed about it. As a professional person, I think you really ought not be jumping members of your staff."

Others found reasons to be forgiving. Mark Karpeles, 76, a retired engineer from Marina del Rey, Calif., said Clinton lied to protect Lewinsky's reputation and to be "a gentleman about it." Gwenyth Lewis, 49, has seen it all before in her work as a marriage counselor outside Philadelphia. "It looks like he has sexual issues," she diagnosed from a distance. "If we want to clean up what presidents do in office, then each of us individually must clean up the way we don't take responsibility in our own families and relationships."

Sentiments such as those helped power the defense fund to extraordinary success, as it raised $2.2 million in its first six months of operation, far eclipsing the president's previous legal expense organization, which was shut down at the end of 1997 because it failed to raise enough money. A final financial report released yesterday showed that the now-defunct fund raised $1.3 million over its 3 1/2-year lifespan, barely half of the new fund. In part, that can be attributed to a higher contribution limit -- $10,000 instead of $1,000 -- and plenty of help from the president's friends in Hollywood, including Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Barbra Streisand. A computer analysis of gifts received by the new fund as of June 30 showed that one out of every five contributors came from California and that the state provided nearly 30 percent of the money collected by then, or $424,000.

The next-highest-contributing state, New York, produced less than half as much money and donors. Virginia accounted for $94,000 from 349 contributors, Maryland for $59,000 from 302 and the District $23,000 from 120.

Another factor working in favor of the new fund is its freedom to ask for money, which the old one could not do under ethics rules because it was controlled directly by the president. The new organization sent a fund-raising letter signed by founder David Pryor, the former Arkansas senator, to 170,000 people selected from Democratic donor lists.

Noting the cost of Starr's investigation, the letter said, "Our President deserves the chance to do his job and serve our nation, unburdened by the prospect of a huge personal debt." Older Americans were disproportionately receptive to the letter's appeal; nearly half of the donors identified themselves as retired.

According to figures released yesterday, Clinton by May accumulated nearly $3.8 million in legal bills related to Whitewater, campaign fund-raising and the Lewinsky matter, not including the vast bulk of the cost of his defense in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit. The old fund paid $773,000 of that total tab, and the new one has paid $1.25 million more. Two insurance companies separately paid $892,000 for Jones-related expenses through 1995 -- and probably as much since then -- but Essaye said an additional $2 million in Jones bills have not been paid as Clinton's lawyers press insurers to pick up those costs, too.

Those figures had an impact on many would-be contributors, including New York attorney Sheldon H. Elsen, who said everyone deserves to have a legal defense even if they have behaved badly. Elsen, 70, who gave $600, said he always suspected Clinton was not truthful about Lewinsky, despite his powerful denial in January.

"It's not a happy thing to have the president go out and lie so baldly, so blatantly and so forcefully. That's what bothers me," he said. "But would I give them money again? Yeah, I'd do it again."

Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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